The response was as cool as the weather when President Barack Obama delivered an eagerly awaited foreign policy speech at West Point’s commencement ceremony Wednesday.
Analysts who predicted that the White House would unveil major initiatives to confound critics and define the administration’s legacy were destined to be disappointed.
Instead, the president trod old ground in a lengthy but weak justification of his policies.
“When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda’s core leadership ... Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.”
Obama has made a career out of blasting the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The team that got the nation into Iraq on false premises and took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan may deserve condemnation, but even Obama’s most ardent supporters were looking for something more.
What they got was what one CNN analyst called “the philosopher-in-chief” — a calm, cerebral, analytical speech to a nation that was hoping for fireworks.
Obama simply dismissed critics who sought to portray him as weak.
“By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world,” he said. “Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”
The president went on to highlight ways in which the United States had taken steps to defuse global crises. It was America, he pointed out, that had led the world in isolating Russia over its aggression in Ukraine; it was Washington that had designed an approach to Iran that was now bearing fruit.
The most consistent criticism leveled at Obama has been what many see as his extreme reluctance to use military force. Last year’s crisis in Syria, when the White House seemed poised to carry out a military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, only to defer to Congress at the last minute, had undermined America’s international position, they argue.
Obama addressed this point as well. The US will not use its preeminence in the military sphere to the exclusion of other tools and tactics, he said. Force is not always the best or even a good, option.
“America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will …. But US military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
The “willingness to rush into military adventures” had cost the nation dearly, said Obama, and had to be curtailed.
The president sounded a defensive note when talking about two other aspects of his foreign policy that have provoked anger and suspicion abroad: drone strikes and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance.
The country's use of unmanned aircraft attacks will continue, he said, but only “when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.”
The drone program has been criticized by those who say it is impossible to guarantee that civilians will not be harmed. A hit on a wedding party in Yemen last December earned the White House fierce condemnation; Human Rights Watch issued a report calling into question whether US forces were in compliance with Obama’s stated policy.
Obama said he was putting “new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.”
Thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that perception has certainly taken hold, and has caused some major irritation with allies such as Germany and Brazil.
Obama’s soothing platitudes are not likely to quiet the criticism, nor are his assurances that the US is committed to transparency on these issues.
“When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion; we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people; and we reduce accountability in our own government,” the president said, articulating the problem more than verbalizing a solution.
The only new element Obama unveiled Wednesday was the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will go to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”
In part, this will provide more robust assistance to rebels in Syria, although the president was not specific on this score.
Secretary of State John Kerry, however, told morning news programs on Wednesday that the increase in training and other assistance is due to a new situation on the ground in Syria, in which rebels are more coordinated and effective.
The West Point speech came one day after Obama outlined his plans for Afghanistan, which include pulling out all but 9,800 troops from the country by the end of 2014 and a complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.